The ever iconic Vogue magazine has cornered the fashion industry since 1892.
The razor-sharp and trendy photos of women (and men) in dynamic, vibrant trend-setting clothing, always stirs the artist in oneself. From makeup to muck boots, this publication has earned its place in history.
In May, Vogue published the most intriguing article titled ‘Regenerative Agriculture Can Change the Fashion Industry and the World.’ Author Emily Farra highlighted the movement within fashion to a more sustainable future, including the ‘mimicking of nature’ and moving beyond what is known in the fashion industry as ‘deadstock’ — unused or unsold fabric that is clothing makers’ equivalent of food waste. The article focused on fabrics made from plants, but many clothes also come from some kind of plant-eating animal.
Consider those fabrics closest to nature: Wool from sheep, goats, bison (bison down), llama, muskox, camel and angora (from rabbits). There is plant-based cotton, hemp, beech, eucalyptus, bamboo, silk (mulberry and silkworm), flax (linen), jute, ramie (of the nettle family), AlgiKnit (which makes a fibre from kelp), leather made from mushrooms, and fabrics from both orange and mango waste. New fabrics have been introduced that are byproducts of animal waste such as Mestic, the flowing fabric made from cow manure.
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I was reminded in reading the article about my own travels and the feel of some of the finest wool and silk: The beautiful bison down mittens I was gifted, the silk scarfs, the light and wonderful lambs’ wool and the softest leathers. These were products of a complex ecological chain where I was privileged to be on the site watching the silk spun and the wool shorn, and then experience that finished fabric against my skin.
I also flashed back to the sewing factories in India where thousands of devoted craftspeople spent long hours creating clothing for some of the top fashion houses in the world. The purchasing of huge rolls of fabric, nearly as tall as I, was the sole responsibility of the one female expert. One flaw and she rejected the entire roll. In the showroom, the array of clothing was astounding, all costing about $1 to sew. The retail price rested in the brand and the quality of the cloth.
The fashion industry is more than a reflection of creative art, style and function. It nurtures the possible and is a primary user of agricultural products. Last year, I met with several Italian students who were studying global business. These young women were set apart by their style with classic elegance. Their passion was fashion — ethical fashion — and they were focused on the elimination of deadstock, traceable natural fabric sources and green fashion (recycled fabric and materials) in which Italy is a global leader. They were committed to be drivers in a historical shift in fashion.
Fine fashion has a long history. On the pages of Vogue, you may see an advertisement for Hermès, which began as a harness maker in 1837, and today sells craft handbags, accessories and furniture. Though you may have never paid $8,000 (or $150,000) for a handbag, many wait to do so. The quality of the handcrafted bag, the vibrancy of the colour, the stitching and exclusivity make these products desirable. The leather and skins are from bovine calves, goats, water buffalo, ostrich, crocodile and alligator — all farmed products.
Agriculture is the foundation of fibre, fabric and fashion; and like a Hermès, the higher the quality of the product, the greater the demand. Why? There are more than enough mediocre, repetitive and linear production and processing systems. We need value chains where production is rewarded for excellence.
Let me compare this fabric analogy to food.
Like textiles, fine food sells and excellence should be rewarded. Instead, in general, we tolerate systems where the commodity from one farm is mixed before retail sale with the commodity from another farm. In doing so, product identification and the possibility of differentiation is lost. Even more troubling is the fact that the co-product value, such as high-quality hide, is not part of the agricultural pricing.
The money is in differentiation, the art of creating, presenting and profiting in a value system that both recognizes and rewards excellence. The fashion industry, a great consumer of agricultural product, exemplifies this.
Will it take a driver outside of agriculture to design and reward change? Perhaps so. The challenge is in changing the pattern and making those meaningful connections that are reflective of a shared intent, belief or value.
You may see the Farra article as a point of view or a place of beginning. Regardless, a publication the calibre of Vogue would not be drawn to a concept that did not have possibility. Specialized agricultural systems focused on differentiation will play a big role in the future of fabric and fashion.